MARANA, Ariz., Feb. 25 -- Henrik Stenson was known to Swedish golf aficionados as "the special one" as he made his way through the amateur ranks in the early 1990s. But in July 2001, he was so frustrated with the deteriorating state of his game, that he walked off the course after nine holes in the opening round of the European Open at the K Club in Ireland. Some wondered if he would ever come back.
Five and a half years and an ocean away from that crisis point, Stenson reached the zenith of his professional life Sunday here in the foothills of Arizona's Tortolita Mountains, an appropriate setting for his steady climb in recent years toward the highest level of the game. The placid Swede, 2 down with 11 holes to play in the 36-hole final of the World Golf Championships Match Play Championship, rallied down the stretch for a grueling 2 and 1 victory in 35 holes over defending champion Geoff Ogilvy for the most important tournament title of his now soaring career.
"I'm just exhausted," Stenson said, laying his head down on a table in the media center 45 minutes after his victory. "I don't know what's up and down and back and forth, really. Feet are aching, head is aching, wallet is aching. I don't remember when I was this tired. I'm almost too tired to be happy."
Stenson scrambled to a miracle par after a shot under a cactus to win the 18th hole and his quarterfinal match Saturday against Nick O'Hern to stay alive in the tournament. He did not squander that opportunity 24 hours later, finally putting Ogilvy away when his 8-iron tee shot at the 178-yard 16th hole stopped two feet from the cup for a conceded birdie. When Ogilvy missed his own five-foot birdie putt that would have halved the hole, Stenson had a 2-up lead with two holes to play.
At the 601-yard 17th hole, Stenson bombed a 340-yard drive, hit his second shot on the green and snuggled a 60-foot eagle putt to within two feet for a conceded birdie and the match. Stenson became only the second European player (joining Irishman Darren Clarke in 2000) to win this $8 million event, collecting a $1.35 million champion's check. No Swedish man had ever won a World Golf Championship tournament, or a major championship, for that matter, but Stenson could change that blemish by the end of the summer, as well.
His first victory on the PGA Tour also vaulted the 30-year-old native of Gothenburg from No. 8 in the world rankings last week to No. 5, the highest rank a Swedish man has ever achieved.
"I can't say straight out I should be in the top five or six in the world," he said. "That's obviously where I am at the moment. But I feel like I've established myself as a top-20 player."
On Sunday, he also established himself as a fighter against a player who had not lost in 11 matches over two years. Stenson opened a two-up advantage on the first 18 holes, but said he began struggling on the front nine after a 45-minute break for lunch. He made four bogeys and no birdies on his first eight holes of the afternoon round, and when he missed a four-foot par putt at the 171-yard No. 8, he was 2 down with 11 to play. But Ogilvy also was struggling with his swing and particularly with his putting. The reigning U.S. Open champion three-putted at the 448-yard No. 9, then made a poor chip leading to a bogey at the 402-yard 11th that allowed Stenson to win another hole and even the match.
Stenson went ahead for good with an eight-foot birdie putt at the 12th, and Ogilvy, to his credit, managed to stay in the match by making clutch 12- and 18-foot putts at 13 and 14 to halve those holes and remain 1 down. After the 18-footer at 14, Stenson gave his opponent a well-done, thumbs-up sign, and Ogilvy returned the compliment later on when he said Stenson's victory should not be at all surprising to anyone who follows the game closely.
"He can win anything he wants," Ogilvy said. "He suffers from the fact that he plays most of his golf outside the U.S. But he's been winning tournaments for three or four years. . . . He's not afraid to win golf tournaments."
Stenson, who will play 15 events on the PGA Tour this season, also was not afraid to get help when his swing broke down back in 2001. He hired a new coach, Peter Cowen, and started working with a psychologist, Tortsten Hansson, and he gave them both full credit Sunday for his reversal of fortune. Stenson clinched the winning point for Europe playing in his first Ryder Cup last September, coincidentally at the K Club. And he won in Dubai on Feb. 4 this year in a field that included Tiger Woods, who tied for third.
"It's been a lot of hard work from everybody involved, and from me, as well," Stenson said. "That's what really got me back. I wasn't really into the thought of quitting, because I think if I was, I wouldn't have been here today."